Written by Renkon
This article was featured in our 2023 June-July issue. Check out more articles and interviews in the full issue.
I was originally supposed to write about this game months ago. I started playing HER TREES by stone all the way back in January, and planned to write about it back then. The artwork drew me in and the puzzles were difficult without feeling impossible. I picked at the game in small bursts over the following few weeks. But as you'd expect, I got distracted with work and life, and set aside HER TREES while promising myself I'd come back and finish it eventually. Weeks and then months passed, and while I never forgot about HER TREES, I just couldn't get into the right headspace to finish it.
Then I got disastrously sick. This past month has been rough for me. I'm sure you can tell by the site's update schedule and how much work Daikon had to do to make up for the slack. My health plummeted and I was constantly drained of energy. Entire days and weeks passed when I couldn't leave my apartment or turn on my computer due to extreme fatigue. Once, I missed a doctor's appointment because when I was getting ready to go, I sat down on the sofa and accidentally fell asleep. I woke up several hours later in a panic, having missed my appointment and not knowing when or even if I'd feel well enough to try again. For over a month straight, I felt frustrated and trapped inside of my own body.
On the few days when I did manage to leave my bed, I loaded up HER TREES and picked away at more of the puzzles. This time, the surreal visuals and stark monochrome color scheme was not just a cool look, but a reflection of the isolation I felt, and the claustrophobic sense of being trapped inside of my own mind.
HER TREES is an escape room game, though not like any I've played before. There is no inventory, and the puzzles are all self-contained. In the center of the room is a person with a glowing tree of light on their head. At first, the tree is bare, but as you solve more puzzles, the tree gains more glowing orbs. The person also has a small door in their chest, though opening and closing it doesn't seem to have any effect.
Along the walls of the room are puzzles, presented almost like artwork in a museum. Each puzzle has a keypad to its right, and you manipulate objects around the space to find the right code to input. There's a real tactile sense to the puzzles, like overlapping a dried flower on top of torn bits of paper, or holding up and looking through a glass pane to strange wire figures. The sound effects and art style do a lot to make it feel like you are really turning these curios over in your hands.
HER TREES is not a horror game, and there are no jump scares or bloody monsters. But it is still vaguely unsettling; one of the most memorable puzzles has you taking apart the fingers on a hand to reveal the twisting bone underneath. Dead leaves and plant matter are a repeating motif, and the aforementioned wire figures look like horned animals and demons. It is not a scary game, but it is also not a happy one. The character standing in the center of the room with an empty door for a heart and a bare tree growing out of her thoughts cannot do anything, and is the one thing between you and freedom. There is no monster chasing you, no bomb ticking down. The thing you are trying to escape from is yourself.
There is a robust hint system if you ever get truly stuck. The hints reveal the answer gradually and in steps, so you can get a tiny nudge or have the answer spelled out for you as needed. I probably should have caved a lot sooner and used the hints, but I enjoyed slowly crawling through this game during my illness.
Getting to the end and finally escaping was like the sun breaking through the clouds. I am really grateful to have rediscovered HER TREES right when I needed it most. I also played through stone's other game, HER BOX, which is more of a wordless adventure game with a similar visual style to HER TREES. I believe stone is currently working on HER TREES 2, and I am looking forward to going on another quiet sojourn when that releases.